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Ear to the Ground

Pussy Riot Member on Hunger Strike

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Posted on Sep 25, 2013
The PIX-JOCKEY (CC BY-NC 2.0)

An artistic representation of Tolokonnikova in prison.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the anti-Putin punk band arrested last year for its performance at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, announced in an open letter that she had launched a protest Monday in Mordovia’s Penal Colony 14 by starving herself until conditions improved. In the year Tolokonnikova has been held in Mordovia, she writes that she has suffered verbal and physical abuse on the orders of the prison administration, and has endured inhumane working conditions along with her fellow inmates. Forced to work 17 hours a day sewing police uniforms on rundown machines, Tolokonnikova says that prisoners barely sleep four hours and are under constant stress and fear in order to inspire submissiveness. The punishments she describes are each more unseemly than the other, reminiscent of Chekhov’s gut wrenching story, “Ward 6,” set in an insane asylum in Russia. The Pussy Riot member goes into great detail about the horrid state of the colony, but explains that the true reason for her strike is the incredible obstacles the administration places on those who dare to complain about the violations of human rights that occur at the prison. The Guardian has printed a translation of Tolokonnikova’s open letter by Bela Shayevich of n+1 magazine:

The living and working-condition violations at PC-14 are endless. However, my main and most important grievance is bigger than any one of these. It is that the colony administration prevents any complaints or claims regarding conditions at PC-14 from leaving colony walls by the harshest means available. The administration forces people to remain silent. It does not scorn stooping to the very lowest and cruelest means to this end. All of the other problems come from this one — the increased quotas, the 16-hour work day, and so on. The administration feels untouchable; it heedlessly oppresses prisoners with growing severity. I couldn’t understand why everyone kept silent until I found myself faced with the avalanche of obstacles that falls on the prisoner who decides to speak out. Complaints simply do not leave the prison. The only chance is to complain through a lawyer or relatives. The administration, petty and vengeful, will meanwhile use all of its mechanisms for putting pressure on the prisoner so she will see that her complaints will not help anyone, but only make thing worse. They use collective punishment: you complain there’s no hot water, and they turn it off entirely.

...Three weeks ago, on 30 August, I asked Lieutenant Colonel Kupriyanov to grant the prisoners in my work brigade eight hours of sleep. We were discussing decreasing the workday from 16 to 12 hours. “Fine, starting Monday, the brigade will only work for eight hours at a time,” he replied. I knew this was another trap because it is physically impossible to fulfill the increased quota in 8 hours. Thus, the brigade will not have time and subsequently face punishment. “If anyone finds out that you’re the one behind this, you’ll never complain again,” the Lieutenant Colonel continued. “After all, there’s nothing to complain about in the afterlife.” Kupriyanov paused. “And finally, never request things for other people. Only ask for things for yourself. I’ve been working in the camps for many years, and those who come to me asking for things for other people go directly from my office to the punishment cell. You’re the first person this won’t happen to.”

Over the course of the following weeks, life in my unit and work brigade became impossible. Prisoners with close ties to the administration began egging on the others to get revenge. “You’re forbidden to have tea and food, from taking bathroom breaks, and smoking for a week. Now you’re always going to be punished unless you start behaving differently with the newbies and especially with Tolokonnikova. Treat them like the old-timers used to treat you. Were you beaten? Of course you were. Did they rip your mouths? They did. Fuck them up. You won’t get punished.”

Over and over, they attempt to get me to fight one of them, but what’s the point of fighting with people who aren’t in charge of themselves, who are only acting on the orders of the administration?

Mordovian prisoners are afraid of their own shadows. They are completely terrified. If only yesterday they were well-disposed toward you and begging, “Do something about the 16 hour work day!” after the administration started going after me, they’re afraid to even speak to me.

I turned to the administration with a proposal for dealing with the conflict. I asked that they release me from the pressure manufactured by them and enacted by the prisoners they control; that they abolish slave labour at the colony by cutting the length of the workday and decreasing the quotas so that they correspond with the law. The pressure has only increased. Therefore, beginning 23 September, I am going on hunger strike and refusing to participate in colony slave labor. I will do this until the administration starts obeying the law and stops treating incarcerated women like cattle ejected from the realm of justice for the purpose of stoking the production of the sewing industry; until they start treating us like humans.

Tolokonnikova’s complaint has garnered attention from many organizations, and has inspired the Russian presidential human rights council to begin working with Penal Colony 14. Lev Ponomaryov, a human rights activist, has publicly asked the Pussy Riot member to cease her hunger strike, since “she has already achieved interest in this case.” According to the news wire Interfax, the head of the public observer commission of Mordovia has stated that Tolokonnikova has been moved to a “safe place” within Penal Colony 14 to continue serving her two-year sentence.

To read the rest of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova’s letter, click here.


—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

 

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